(Adds comment from Clean Water Action, American Petroleum Institute)
By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON, June 27 (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief on Wednesday said he would eliminate regulations that allowed it to block permits for major projects that may pollute water, handing a victory to mining, oil and land development companies seeking to avoid delays over environmental concerns.
In a memo, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said he is directing the agency’s office of water to change current regulations under the federal Clean Water Act to eliminate the agency’s power to preemptively or retroactively veto permits before or after they have been filed with the Army Corps of Engineers or state agencies.
The action marked Pruitt’s latest move to unwind regulations he has said were unfair to businesses. It would remove an important check on large projects that can adversely affect local water supplies, an environmental group said.
Pruitt said EPA veto power is unnecessary because the National Environmental Policy Act already requires federal agencies to consider environmental effects from proposed projects, and offers a process for public comment.
“Today’s memo refocuses EPA on its core mission of protecting public health and the environment in a way that is fair and consistent with due process,” Pruitt said in a statement.
The memo also said EPA regional offices would need to get approval from headquarters before attempting to block water permits, and provide a period for public comment before vetoing permits.
Mining and land development companies have complained that EPA’s ability to pre-empt or prolong permitting delayed their projects.
Clean Water Action on Wednesday said the EPA has historically used its veto power 13 times in 45 years, and that Pruitt is taking the side of companies instead of protecting the environment.
“This is a brazen attack on our ability to keep our water clean and protect communities from the most damaging mining and development projects,” Clean Water Action’s national water programs director Jennifer Peters said in a statement.
Pruitt cited a 2014 Obama-era EPA proposal of restrictions on Pebble Mine, an Alaskan copper mine, before the company wanting to develop it had submitted a permit application. He said it should have not pre-empted the permitting process.
Environmental groups have criticized changes Pruitt has been implementing at the country’s environmental regulatory body, including weakening internal scientific advisory panels and proposed large staffing cuts, saying they threaten to weaken the agency in the long term.
The American Petroleum Institute, the main lobby group for the oil and gas industry, praised the EPA memo, saying it will speed up permitting of pipelines around the country. (Reporting By Valerie Volcovici Editing by Bill Berkrot)